The Heian Period is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of Japanese history. It was roughly three hundred years long, starting in 794 AD, which is when the capital of Japan, previously in Nara, was moved to the new city of Heian-kyo, which was later known as Kyoto. This new city was laid out in the manner of the capital of the T'ang dynasty in China. The style of architecture used by the Japanese court at the time is indicative of the direction of much of the then-current culture. The Heian period is characterized by transitions, from wholesale adoption of Chinese ideals to a more moderated adaptation. Much of what we think of as Japanese culture today was formed in the Heian era, especially the aesthetic ideals that even now shape the Japanese perception of the world.

Among the more important developments of the time was the birth of a native literature. Prior to the Heian era, the Japanese had no way to write their own language, other than using the unwieldy Chinese ideograms. Since writing in Chinese was still considered a mark of education and intelligence, it was due mainly to the efforts of the court ladies (women like Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu), that the Japanese syllabaries came into being. It bears mentioning that the while the writing of the ladies may have been considered frivolous at the time, they now rank among the world's great literary achievements (The Lady Murasaki's "Tale of Genji" is undoubtedly the world's first novel, written at the beginning of the 11th century), and the men's bad Chinese poetry is relegated to much lower historical significance.

So the refined arts of poetry and literature flourished in the Heian period, but not without costs. Considering the complete absence of any reference to non-noble individuals in the Tale of Genji, one comes to the conclusion that the imperial court essentially ignored the lower classes that they were dependent on. This was likely one of the problems that contributed to the militarily strong Minamoto clan's rise to power and the installation of the first shogun as de facto power, usurping the Fujiwara clan's political control of the emperor. The imperial family, it is worth noting, has since ancient times held de jure power over Japan. The shift of de facto power from one faction to another is at the heart of the study of Japanese history.

But that's a topic for another node.


Back to Nara Period | Forward to Kamakura Period

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.